in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #248: Why Football Matters

Football is often used as a metaphor for life.

What is it about football that makes it so adept at providing lessons on living, what specific lessons can we gleam from the sport, and are those lessons worth the risk of physical injury that come with playing the game?

My guest today takes a stab at answering these questions in his book Why Football Matters: My Education in the GameHis name is Mark Edmundson and he’s a professor of English at the University of Virginia. I had him on the show at the beginning of the year to talk about his book Self and Soul. Today on the show Mark and I discuss his experience playing high school football and the lessons on character, courage, loss, and manliness that he picked up from the game. Besides the upsides of football, Mark also shares the negative lessons football can teach young men. If you played football in high school like I did, you’ll definitely resonate with this episode. But it will also be of interest for anyone who has a son who plays, or who simply watches the game.

Show Highlights

  • What Mark learned about manliness from watching football with his dad
  • What Y.A. Tittle and Jim Brown can teach us about manliness
  • Why a fat, asthmatic, nerdy Mark decided to play football in high school
  • Why Mark is ambivalent about the lessons he learned from playing football
  • What is “character,” and how does football develop it?
  • The downsides of football character
  • What is it about football that lends itself to finding analogous life lessons?
  • What is courage and how does football help develop it?
  • How you can channel anger to develop your courage
  • The two models of manliness: Achilles and Hector
  • What football can teach us about losing
  • What football training can teach us about training the soul
  • The connection between football and faith
  • How football can teach men compassion
  • Do the benefits of football outweigh the risks of concussions?
  • What the finitude of football teaches us about life
  • We also talk about Mark’s new book on writing, and much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Why football matters by Mark Edmundson, book cover.

If you played football as a young man, you’ll definitely enjoy Mark’s book Why Football Matters. Even if you’ve never played the game and have reservations about the sport, I’d give it a read. Mark provides a nuanced look at a sport that has played a big role in American masculinity. While you’re at it, check out Mark’s latest book Why Write? A Master Class in the Art of Writing and Why it MattersLike all of Mark’s books, it’s incredibly well written (he practices what he preaches), will make you laugh out loud occasionally, and provides plenty of fodder to think about.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Football is often used as a metaphor for life. What is it about football that makes it so adept to providing lessons on living and what specific lessons can we glean from this sport and are those lessons worth the risk of physical injury that come with playing the game? My guest today takes a stab at answering these questions in his book, “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.” His name is Mark Edmundson and he’s a professor of English at the University of Virginia. I had Mark on the show at the beginning of the year to talk about his fantastic book “Self and Soul,” if you haven’t checked that out, listen to it.

Today on the show Mark and I discuss his experience playing high school football and the lessons of character, courage, loss and manliness that he picked up from the game. Besides the upsides of football, Mark also shares the negative lessons football can teach young men. If you played football in high school like I did you’ll definitely resonate with this episode, but it will also be of interest to anyone who has a son who plays or simply enjoys watching the game. After the show is over make sure to check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Mark Edmundson, welcome back to the show.

Mark Edmundson: Thanks so much, delighted to be here.

Brett McKay: We had you on the show back in January to talk about your book “Self and Soul,” and got a lot of great feedback on that episode, people loved it. Today I want to bring you back to talk about the first book that I read of yours that really turned me on to your writing is called “Why Football Matters.” As someone who played football in middle school and high school I just resonated with, what you wrote resonated with me a lot. I’m sure a lot of people who played football in high school or middle school will probably resonate with what we talk about today.

Let’s talk about this, it’s about your lessons you’ve learned from football when you played back in high school. Let’s talk about your experience with football. What was your first contact with the game?

Mark Edmundson: My first contact with the game was watching the New York football Giants on a Sunday afternoon with my dad. My dad was a rabid fan and there was a preliminary before the game, he would get himself all set up with this cigarettes and his chair and his hassock and then there’s this chocolate bar that had to be in the right place. Then the music would come on and he would be absolutely glued and wrapped, especially if the Giants were playing against the Cleveland Browns and he could see Jim Brown. My father was a very agitated person, he was always on the go, he worked two jobs, two jobs as a short order cook, 16 hours a day sometimes. He had a tremendous amount of energy and I think the only time I ever really saw him stabilize was in front of the TV watching football. That was a time for me to get next to him and listen to him talk and maybe ask him a question or two, and get a little closer to him than I’d been.

Brett McKay: Did your dad probably impart some lessons about manliness or being a man while you were watching football, while watching Jim Brown or watching the Giants?

Mark Edmundson: Yes. Jim Brown was somebody who had been given spectacular gifts by the gods and he had nourished those gifts and developed them and he had become just the greatest football player and maybe the greatest athlete who ever lived. I think the case can still be made. He was an example of somebody who had extraordinary gift. My father was a little more interested in Y.A. Tittle, who I understand just celebrated maybe his 91st birthday, one of the two oldest people alive in the Football Hall of Fame. My father loved Y.A. Tittle partly because Tittle looked like somebody who really didn’t have much natural ability, and he probably didn’t, and yet he had taken what he had and developed every single thing that he had to make himself not just a good, but really an extremely good football player. He was nothing like Jim Brown but he was very good indeed.

I think that was my father’s main drift, the undercurrent of his talk, he was very interested in people who had not perfect skills or perfect capacities, but nonetheless took what they had and used every single ounce of it to achieve something that was worth achieving.

Brett McKay: I think we can take that. We’ll talk about this later. I think that’s a good segue or connection to your Hector and Achilles dichotomy you set up later on, when you talk about courage and football. Before we get there, you watched the game with your dad and it’s a way for you to connect with your father, but you were this fat asthmatic kid, wore glasses, the stereotypical non-jock, yet in high school, I think you were a junior, you decided to go out for the football team. What drove you to do that? Were you just wanting to have some fun, hang out with friends or did you have some larger existential reasons why you wanted to play?

Mark Edmundson: If I did have those reasons, and I think I did, they probably weren’t available to me consciously. I knew that my life was flying off in every direction, our home life was tough, my sister had been very sick and she had died at the age of seven. It was really dubious whether my family was going to stay together or not. It was really because of my mother’s amazing resilience that we did. I was looking for some form of stability. I couldn’t find it in school because I had some academic talent but I hated the classes, I couldn’t find it there.

I decided I would give football a shot. I’d always liked it down at the park and I was surprisingly not too bad for a fat kid with glasses and asthma. I spent the summer before that junior year trying to get in shape a little bit and I got a little stronger and a little faster. I ended up going out for the team and making it, not by much, but make it I did. In a lot of ways it changed my life, and for the most part, made it better.

Brett McKay: What position did you play?

Mark Edmundson: I played guard, the glamour position, and linebacker, or as I was called because I played without my glasses, blindbacker.

Brett McKay: Blindbacker, all right. I was a center in my playing days.

Mark Edmundson: That’s the tough guy.

Brett McKay: The tough guy, yeah. Here’s the thing, I couldn’t do shotgun snap. We always had to go right from underneath.

Mark Edmundson: You also have to know what the count is when it actually gets hiked, which not everybody can remember.

Brett McKay: I could do that, I could do that, but I couldn’t shotgun snap.

Mark Edmundson: There you go.

Brett McKay: Your book is about these lessons that you learned from playing football and how you just said, it really did improved your life, but at the same time the way you write about it in the book you’re ambivalent about the lessons you got from football. Why is that? Why were you hesitant to gush completely about how amazing football was? What is it about the sport or your experience with it that made you sort of, “Well, yeah, it’s good, but there’s also,” you had some reservations about it.

Mark Edmundson: I did. I mean, overall, especially high school football, I’m a great defender of and appreciator of. I think that some of the coaches and some of the players who are involved with that game are just terrific teachers and terrific comrades. You can’t beat it, but just talking about a virtue like character, character is a great virtue and there are a lot of ways to define character, but just in a shorthand way, I said, “Character is the ability to get up every day and do pretty much a sequence of very positive things that are helping you very gradually to grow.” Football was very good at teaching you that. You learned how to block, you learned how to tackle, every day you learned a little more technique, every day you got a little stronger and more determined and you learned more.

Eventually you became really quite a better player, but the downside of that, and you could transfer that over into all kinds of activities, if you’re a businessman building a business, if you’re a writer building a book, if you’re somebody with a website building up its resonance in the world, one little step at a time is often the way that it works.

That’s fantastic, but there’s also a kind of lockstep automaton-like quality to football character. You’re always doing what the coach says. You’re always filling out. You’re always doing your job as Bill Belichick says. There’s not a lot of improvisation, especially if you’re the guard. There was this sense of, “Character is great, but too much character annuls,” and I like this little pairing here, “annuls personality sometimes, and flair, and individuality.”

Fortunately we had some real individualists on our team, who couldn’t be much daunted by the robotic quality of football but they were mostly defensive backs and there are much more glamorous guys than we linemen were, but character has its downside, courage has its downside. All kinds of things came up as I was thinking about the game.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s going back to this idea of character, sort of stick-to-itiveness, how has it played out in your life? You’re a college professor now, you write books, how is the character that you developed while playing high school football helped you, and how has it hurt you? Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “Boy, I am sort of becoming automaton here?”

Mark Edmundson: It’s been good. I had some really good educational chances, after I left high school I went to a very creatively oriented college, Bennington College. I went to graduate school in English, that was full of very imaginative people, Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Harman, I went to Yale. I got a chance to stimulate the creative side of me, such as it is, it’s not what other people may have but I also spent a lot of time, since I was an assistant professors here at Virginia writing books. There’s something of book writing that is … It depends on character and it builds character. You just get out there and do the same darn thing every day with a little bit of a difference and you draft it again and again and again and you read your criticisms of it, read criticisms that come to you and you assimilate them and you move forward slowly.

There’s a combination of inspiration, you’ve got to have a good idea that keeps you jazzed but you also have to have the everyday, work a day virtues that Football helped instill and it came from there. Also, there is the fact that I wasn’t very good at football. The coaches didn’t care that much whether I got better or not, I just did. I learned how to work without an audience or appreciation or without getting into the game very much on Saturday and staring. I just learned how to work ahead with nobody in particular looking on or cheering, which is really good for a writer.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this, yeah, you learned about character but let’s go a little meta here. What is it about football, the game of football that makes it so adept at providing life lessons? It’s like the go-to sports analogy for just life. It’s hard to do that with baseball, it’s hard to do that … You can do it with basketball sometimes, sprinting is a good one like Olympic sprinting but football just seems like it’s perfect for life lessons. What is it about the sport you think?

Mark Edmundson: Well, as you probably know, as a fellow offensive lineman, at least in the high school level, in the small college level, it’s not all about talent. It’s about effort and it’s a sport where you can make yourself a whole lot better by effort than almost any other sport I could think of. It’s real hard to hit a major league curve ball if you don’t have the eyes and the hands for it. It’s real hard to drop your time by a second in a 100 meter dash no matter what but you can get to be a pretty darn good lineman just through desire and through commitment and so that’s a template that’s available to lots and lots of guys whereas some other sports they exclude you just because of your relative lack of talent.

If you don’t have the talent to be wide receiver or the quarter back there’s still probably room for you somewhere in the interior line even if it’s on the third strength. You get this chance to educate yourself. It’s also a sport where effort really does pay off. I’ve played tennis before, I could play tennis day after day, year after year and I would get no better because the fundamental talent isn’t there but football, I could get better, even if the coaches didn’t see it.

Brett McKay: Right. Another aspect of football is there’s a lot of luck involved. There’s things that just like a fumble happens, you get a bad call and that’s like life. Things just happen that you have no control over and you have to deal with it.

Mark Edmundson: You are right. There is that beautiful tension in football between the absolutely outrageously unexpected thing that just happens the tip or the interception or the fumble and then the fact that in order to succeed you also have to grind it out. The grind out is part of the game but the exuberant moment is part of the game too. It makes it really exciting to watch. Also, as you say, as you suggest it teaches you that bad stuff happens and you just got to walk away from it and see if you can recoup the next play.

Brett McKay: Right. You talked about how you learned about character, developing character but you also talk about how football can teach courage. What kind of courage are we talking about here because there’s all sorts of courage. There’s moral courage, emotional courage, intellectual courage.

Mark Edmundson: Right. I’m thinking about physical courage and I’m thinking about the ability, which I didn’t have when I started, to stick my head and shoulder in and make a tackle. It’s just a very … It’s counter intuitive as they say. You don’t really want to do that if you’re somebody who is self-protective and somewhat tenet as I was. I figured out how to do that. I figured out how to do that but it wasn’t easy. The way I figured out how to do it was that I would work myself up into a rage by thinking about different things that had made me really angry or humiliated me a lot then I was a beast out there and I was really throwing myself here and there.

That’s one form of courage. I don’t know if that’s what Lawrence Taylor was doing when he was running around the line for the giants. I don’t know if that’s what Jim Brown was doing. Maybe it was in some measure, but that’s what I was doing and it’s great. The problem with that is that you have, as it were, let the beast out of the cage. The beast may come out of the cage some other time when you don’t really need it to and when you’re not in the confines of the football field. Or on a football field you may do something that you eventually come to regret.

As I said in the book, even though I feel that I have a pretty good wrap on the aggressive side with football stimulated in me, I’m still a middle-edged or now early old-age bourgeois guy, might be more likely than the others to get really too mad at somebody and lose it. I don’t think I’m going to pop anybody in the nose anymore, but that’s partly because my shoulder hurts from playing basketball.

Brett McKay: There is that ambivalence about football is a good thing but then there’s also that dark side you have to keep running on.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, but almost all constructive activities have that. I did a PhD it’s great. I loved it, learned a lot, delightful but there are occupational hazards to that. You might tend to dominate the dinner table with your own boring disquisitions on and on and on and you might think you know it all and know it all and know it all isn’t what you really are. Every virtue you acquire has an underside. It’s just a matter of looking into them and seeing what they might be. The football virtues are pretty dramatic and the football risks are pretty dramatic too especially as you move forward in the game into big time college or big time pro.

Brett McKay: Yeah. In your chapter about courage, you talk about 2 models of courage, Homer, Hector, not Homer, Hector and Achilles.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, Hector and Achilles right.

Brett McKay: What’s the difference between the 2?

Mark Edmundson: Well, Achilles is the greatest of the Greek worriers and he is a natural worrier. He is unbeatable on the field and the story about Achilles is that if you stand to fight him he’ll cut you down. If you run from him he will catch you. There’s simply nothing that you can do. When has this dispute at the beginning with Lord Agamemnon who is the martial of the army about the slave girl, there is this sense that in a moment, in a moment Achilles could destroy Agamemnon formidable as he is and the gods intervene, they don’t want that to happen. He’s a natural warrior and everything comes easily to him.

Hector on the other hand, it says at one point, I had to learn in order to be a soldier, I had to learn in order to be fighter. He’s much more a politician and a kind and judicious one at that. He’s the only one aside from Priam and Troy who’s kindly to Helen who’s in terrible stress, distress when she’s there. Hector is the gentleman fighter and he’s the one who knows how to turn it on and turn it off. When Achilles is enraged at Hector for Hector’s murder of Patroclus, Achilles simply goes mad. Achilles simply goes mad.

You can mad out there on the football field but you’re taking risks. Not only in the football field but then later on in life. Maybe it’s not an accident that Jim Brown got into plenty of trouble and also got plenty of positive notice after he left football, chiefly for spousal abuse. Lawrence Taylor perennially in trouble, one of the greatest linebackers, one of my favorite football players but perennially in trouble for one thing and another.

A Hector-like player, I don’t know, Steve Young maybe? I don’t think Steve Young is going to get into a whole lot of trouble tomorrow. He’s a competitive guy and a tough guy but he knew how to turn it on and turn it off and he’s go quite a sense of humor about himself and about what he achieved. Jim brown has many magnificent qualities but sense of humor I don’t think is salient among them.

Of course, the moral of the story in part is that when Hector and Achilles fight in Homer, Hector loses and in fact he’s humiliated by Achilles who chases him around the walls of Troy and then butchers him and drugs him around behind his chariot. Maybe the wild man has the advantage over the more civilized warrior and that makes things pretty problematic it seems to me.

Brett McKay: Right. You talk about Hector and Achilles in “Self and Soul” as well on the same ideas some-

Mark Edmundson: Yes. Yeah. I got a little extra mileage out of that.

Brett McKay: Right no. It’s a great analogy. I love it. Frankly it’s a good analogy for manliness too. Some people are just born with this like … They are born virile. Other guys have to learn it. Learn how to do it.

Mark Edmundson: The learners are probably more admirable people and the sorts of people you want around, except that I don’t know when it’s time to go take care of Osama Bin Laden, I don’t know if you want Hector going. You might want Achilles and a few more guys like him.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you want the Achilles yeah. Natural talent has the rage that he can’t turn off. Okay, there’s courage. Football teaches us about loss. You have that in there. This was very pertinent to you because at the time, as you said earlier, you lost a sister, she was only 7 to a sickness. How did football and losing in football, how did that help you deal with the loss of your sister?

Mark Edmundson: It gave me a sense of … Football is a theater and one of the lines in the book that I actually like is that one of the reasons football matters a lot is because it doesn’t matter much at all. It’s just a game and yet you get to work out really strong kinds of emotional dramas on a football field. I remember vividly the first time we lost when I was a junior, we had a 12-game winning streak and we lost to Summerville they beat us up horribly.

The whole bus was full of people crying and weeping and bemoaning themselves and they were just … Its’ a disaster area. I was one of them and then we continued on that vein and the couch at a certain point said, “Enough. Stop it. Here’s what you did wrong last week. Now get to work on these things. Now learn how to develop.” What he basically showed us was that mourning for a game and then also mourning in life is different in many ways, requires a certain amount of giving in sort of thing.

We really were sad but it was a little bit theatrical. Then also holding up and going back to work and doing what you can. My sister had been deceased for quite a while then but I did see how it did help me appreciate my mother who had mourned very fiercely for Barbara Anne but then after that was done, after that was done, she pulled herself back up because she would have been … Part of it was what where you can mourn forever just as we were on a smaller scale after we lost to Summerville, she pulled herself back up again, she put herself together and she began serving dinners and lunches and breakfast and washing the clothes and doing the things that a ‘50s and ‘60s mom was needing to do and that we, my brother and I and my father, desperately needed for her to do during those days.

She brought her mourning to a certain point, she’s wild with grief and then she stopped it and that was a more profound lesson than the one I found on the football field but kids don’t always learn from their parents immediately, sometimes it takes 5, 10, 20 years.

Brett McKay: Lets’ take a question. These lessons you’ve gotten from football, were you aware of them when you were a kid or is this you looking back as an older man?

Mark Edmundson: There’s a great word that Freud has which means reasoning with the later reasons and I ask my students all the time to look back into their lives and what they’ve done and to create their reprise of that experience with words so they can see who they are and how they got there.

A lot of it was looking back with an adult’s kind of insight, if insight it was and seeing what it was that I’d actually learned that. For instance, I may have learnt a certain amount of character in football, I may have applied that to the writing of my dissertation and the writing of books and maybe some other things too and I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time but I was glad to afterwards and I don’t think the process is ever quite done until you’ve tried to say what it is you have learned and try to evaluate it and also try to evaluate its downside as we were just talking about Brett.

Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier before you went off with the team you were tried to get in shape, you started working out and then between your junior and senior year you got really in to physical strength. You became the supplements guy, you got all the supplements to gain weight, to get the weight protein.

Mark Edmundson: I did, I did.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I did that too when I was …

Mark Edmundson: Did you?

Brett McKay: I got really into it because I wanted to be the best I could be but I’m curious what did that, your football training going back to your book “Self and Soul”, what did football training teach you about training the mind and the soul, the sort of physical visceral training teach you about this more abstract ethereal aspect of our lives?

Mark Edmundson: Well, it taught me that the development of the mind for instance is a whole lot like the development of the body though people don’t say so and when I talk to athletes about becoming better students I say “You’re much further along than you think you are, everything you did as a swimmer or a hockey player or football player, if you practiced a lot and if you played hard, you already have the template in place for learning. It’s just the people who probably told you that you’re not as good as learning as you are at sports but it doesn’t matter.

In a certain way. You are who you are and you need to make gains in the intellectual field just as somebody like me who doesn’t have much by way of athletic aptitude needed to make gains in the physical field.” Those two things are very close together and they are probably a little bit under-appreciated, the symbiosis between them. If you’ve done one you can probably go off and do the other.

Brett McKay: Right, there is a reason why you know … I feel like the Greeks and the Romans understood this. They make references like Aristotle, you’re training the soul just like a wrestler is training the body.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, absolutely, that’s a good point, that’s a good point. The Greeks said this concept, I probably will pronounced it wrong, kalokagathia, the good mind and the good body feeding each other and strengthening each other.

Brett McKay: Yeah, do you have a chapter about … You discuss the connection between faith and football and it is because I remember when I played high school in Oklahoma, football is religion, Christianity is big here. Before every game we say the lord’s prayers even the Muslim guy in our team joined in and said the Lord’s prayer with us. What do you make that connection between faith and football? What does it say about individuals who worship a Jesus who is meek and mild, yet will go out and harness their Achilles like rage to physically pummel their opponent on the football field?

Mark Edmundson: Well, as you are pointing out, as the book moves forward it becomes a little bit more a reflection on American through football and that’s the kind of a turning point when I start thinking about American religion in relationship to the game and you know, it’s simply is a puzzle to me. It’s simply is a puzzle that we have football so much associated with the religion. Football’s association with the military makes 100% sense from my point of view, they do feed off each other in certain ways but football’s association of religion incredibly strange.

If somebody said as Camila Polia my teacher at Bennington for an hour said “Football is my religion.” I know exactly what she means by that. She means that she’s a pagan, she likes competition, she’s not averse to physical struggle, she looks at things in terms of opposition, she’s kind of gladiatorial, that all makes sense but when somebody says “You know I play football and Jesus is my religion.” I say “Wow, that’s a little strange, Jesus playing football?”

It’s like the least violent person imaginable. It’s just very puzzling but it points to the fact that Judeo-Christianity from some perspectives is based on a little bit of tension to say the least and that’s the tension which we’re in, the relatively mind and relatively sweet nature with some exceptions Jesus and the figure that is claimed as his father who is capable of getting rid of Sodom and Gomorrah in a flash and flooding the whole world and drowning everybody and so it’s a very strange religion, it’s got these two sides. The vengeful God on the one side and the forgiving God on the other side and we live in the midst of this … I just call it a tension, not a contradiction and by looking at football you see it. I don’t know what you do with it after you’ve seen it but you see it.

Brett McKay: Right, it’s kind of interesting about football. My experience of football was some of my most … I had some of my most touching kind of compassionate moments in football.

Mark Edmundson: Yes.

Brett McKay: Which is bizarre, where you really like … You mourn for a team member or if there’s a player on the opposing team that goes down, you all take a knee and you feel for the guy and you want to help him out and also there was a guy in my football team when we were playing, he was slow, he was in the special ed classes but he came out for the team and he got picked on by everyone else but on our football team, you did not mess with him. If we found out someone was messing with this guy you would have to deal with ten, 250-pound linemen and we protected that guy. It’s interesting, it actually … I was able to tap into my nurturing side because of football.

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. There is something a little bit about Christian that isn’t there, I hadn’t thought of that. No, it’s a band of brothers. There is no doubt about that and once you’re accepted and have gone through the work and the pain and the strength and the sorrow and the grief together, you’re one, your family. When I went to my high school reunion, must have been my … Oh, man forty- fifth high school reunion and there’s a lot of people I was delighted to see. It was great, I had a wonderful time but there’s a special place in my heart for the guys I played football with and there at least 10 or 12 of them there and our pleasure in seeing each other no matter how different we were now, no matter how little or how much we had in common was overwhelming. It was overwhelming, it was great.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I haven’t been able to replicate that experience.

Mark Edmundson: Well, bide your time.

Brett McKay: Bide your time, okay, I’ve got a while and I’m only 33. We mentioned earlier, your dad taught you about manliness with football from the life of Jim Brown, Tizdle, Tiddle, is that …?

Mark Edmundson: Yes, Y.A. Tittle.

Brett McKay: Yeah, seems like we associate football with masculinity obvious, it’s very martial but there’s a risk to it. That’s what makes football appealing, is that risk connection with football, is that what makes football so appealing to men that there’s this risk factor to it?

Mark Edmundson: It varies over time. I was watching some clips of high school football near me, here is central Virginia the other night on Friday night and there’s some really good football players out there but they are not hitting each other so hard that they’re going to hurt each other very much at all, they’re just you know … They’re not strong enough, they’re not fast enough and probably god know they’re not mean enough. Every now and then you’ll see a kid in the game who’s bound for a college career, maybe even a pro career and the other players are kind of wow, what’s coming my way.

There’s a kind of … In my favorite game, high school football, there’s hard contact but the violence is not as emphatic as it becomes when you start to watch high power college football as I do, I live around the corner this far from the UVA football stadium and especially the pros. The amazing, it’s savage beauty, tragic beauty you see out there. They just wail on each other, if you’re down on the side lines and you listen to them hit. it’s like the thunder gone off, it’s some kind of Jovian experience and people are really having to deal with that in lots and lots of ways culturally and it’s not going to be easy. I don’t know how much football is going to be played or how football is going to be played 20 years from now.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a reason that we’re having that conversation in our culture right now, whether football should even have a role. What are your thoughts, does football have a role or the benefits of football outweigh the risk of the sport?

Mark Edmundson: Well, as long as the coach isn’t crazy and some of them are, high school football is fantastic, love it, okay. Small college football, fantastic, love it. These guys are good, they play hard but they’re not going to knock each other’s spleens off or knock each other’s head’s off or break each other’s spine’s or anything like that, it’s probably just not going to happen.

As you move up into big time college and big time pro, you’re looking at a level of violence that is really distressing, it seems to me. I still watch it, I feel a certain amount of anxiety about watching it, I feel a certain amount of guilt about watching.

My argument for it happening is the libertarian argument basically which is that you get some young guys and they look out into the world and they see that they will trade the prospect of bodily harm or even mental harm for the amazing excitement and camaraderie of the game and the money that’s involved and the perks that are involved, the privileges that are involved and they’re willing to make that trade. Are they old enough to make that trade when they’re 21 and they could also go off to Iraq or Afghanistan or could have while we were there? Yes, they’re old enough to make that trade but it still doesn’t make me feel completely happy about it. If we only had small college and high school football in America, I would be a happier person. I’d go watch those games and all would be well.

Brett McKay: Again, there’s that ambivalence about the sport?

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, well but then you start really looking into sports and you find out there’s many straight-out concussions in soccer as they are in football. People banging into a goal post and the hardest I ever got hit in the head in my life is when I tried to head a soccer ball, I decided I’d never do that again but there are those sub-concussion events in football that are really … They build up and they can’t be too good for you, they can’t be too good for you in the long run.

Brett McKay: Right, right. Well, Mark it’s been decades since you’ve played football …

Mark Edmundson: It has.

Brett McKay: Do you miss playing the game?

Mark Edmundson: Oh, yeah. If there’s some way I could get back in there and take a shot I would be thrilled but my body would last about 1 play even if the guy crossed the line was being, especially kind to me. Of course, what I get is pick up basketball which I’m through rehabbing my way back into for what I hope will be one last long run and that’s some of the satisfactions of football but it’s different.

Brett McKay: It is different. I remember before the last game, football career of my game during the playoffs, a coach told my seniors this could be the last time you step on a field with pads so play like it and you know what? He was right. I’ve played flag football, I’ve played touch football, I’ve done pick up basketball but flag and touch football aren’t really football.

Mark Edmundson: Not the same, no, they’re not the same but that’s a big day.

Brett McKay: Yeah, what does the finitude of football teach us about. Is there a lesson there you think?

Mark Edmundson: Well, you know they say athletes die twice and that you die the last day that you play the game and then you die of course corporeally sometime later down the line and yeah, it does teach you about finitude in a certain way. I think that it’s always possible to take what you learned in football and as long as you’re not maimed by the game to bring it over to pick up basketball or to other games that might serve you in middle age as well as football served in you as a young guy.

I play pick up basketball with the same guys for 20 years and that did more for me in terms of social life and friends and a mutual understanding between guys continuing on playing football, some semi-pro league could ever possibly have done. To everything there’s a season and I was pleased to make that jump. In terms of the intensities of football, well, you probably not going to find that in other places but I find intensity plus camaraderie plus good intellectual exchange. This particular group is full of book writers and all kinds, doctors and therapists and all kinds of tremendously interesting people that I never would have gotten to meet had it not been for the basketball game.

Brett McKay: Okay, you can still look for these opportunities elsewhere?

Mark Edmundson: You can, you can. There are different intensities but they exist.

Brett McKay: They exist, well, switch gears a bit. You’ve got a new book out about writing which I read, again like your other books fantastic.

Mark Edmundson: Thank you so much.

Brett McKay: Can you tell us about what this book is about and what you’re hoping to convey through it?

Mark Edmundson: I’m hoping to convey the joy of writing. “Why Write” is about what you can gain by way of intellectual development rather than just physical or physical intellectual development by way of writing. It teaches you how to argue, it teaches you how to perceive things, it teaches you how to as it were, make sense and it discloses to you aspects of yourself that you never would have known were there.

The third book I wrote was a book about Gothic about scary movies, scary books stuff that fascinated me when I was a boy. Did I know I was ever going to write a book about that? No, once I started writing it, I was obsessed about by it and so a new part of myself grew and a new set of interest and it was incredibly exhilarating to do that and the mind as I  said before, the mind strengthens the way the body does and you can strengthen it through reading and sometimes reading is, can be a little bland, you’re not really plunging in there or you can strengthen it through writing where you try to get your ideas down on paper and show them to other people and talk them over and that’s an incredibly enriching and enlarging experience. The best education I know of really is the education by writing though it’s hard to do.

Brett McKay: Yeah, writing I find whenever … I don’t really know what I have to say until I actually sit down and write it because it actually …

Mark Edmundson: Nothing wrong with that.

Brett McKay: Right, what would you tell for someone who is listening. I love this analogy that writing is exercise for the mind, how does a guy who get started who doesn’t write. I’m not a writer but I want to get that benefit from it, how do you get … Do you just start writing and then … Is there sort of a regimen you can follow like you would with your football training to get better at writing?

Mark Edmundson: Yeah, well, you got to try. The thing I advise people to try first is to write about their childhood a little bit. Where did you live, who were your friends, what was it like? Any stories you have from back then, they are your stories, it’s your life and so you have every right to them and that’s the place that people often can be very successful in writing.

Then the other thing I say is don’t expect too much. You know I know people say “You know I’ve had this novel I’ve always wanted to write and I’m going away to New Hampshire for seven days and I think I’m going to get it written then.” Maybe, maybe but that’s probably not going to happen. A little bit every day and a little bit more the next week and a little bit more the next week if you have the time can help you a lot and the other thing is writing every day, if you can do it write every day. Stephen King writes ever day but his birthday and Christmas I think and he’s written some books. I don’t love them all but he’s written some books.

Brett McKay: Right, well Mark this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Mark Edmundson: Thanks, those were just wonderful questions, I’m very grateful.

Brett McKay: My guest here was Mark Edmundson, he’s the author of the book “Why Football Matters.” It’s available on and book stores everywhere and also while you are there checkout his new book “Why Write”, a great book. If you are a writer or want to become a writer, a lot of great insights there. Also, check out the shows at matters for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa Oklahoma. If you ever need audio editing needs or music production needs check them out at and if you’ve got a moment or two I would appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher really helps out. As always, I appreciate the continued support and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay Manly.

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